There we were baring more than just our souls to each other. It was nice and rather sensual with the wind kissing your naked bits.
When my friend Sandy, as I’ll call her, announced that she wanted to go to Wreck Beach, I was surprised. Wreck Beach, as anyone from Vancouver, Canada, knows, is “clothing optional.” Normally Sandy is so shy that she blushes at hello, but since turning 50 she has been fearlessly working her way through her bucket list. “Yes, and I want you all to come with me,” she said. Although the six of us women have been friends for over 40 years, and would do anything for each other, we raised our collective eyebrows. “You want to go now?” said Bridget (another fake name to avoid embarrassing our adult children). “You couldn’t have thought of it when we were in our 20s?”
Right away, Ursula, who used to be a wild, party-loving girl, and still has a bikini body, surprised us all when she said, “No way. I’m not taking my clothes off in public.” Even though after one too many tequila shooters she once did a panty-less can-can dance atop a table in a Mexican bar, going naked intentionally was an entirely different matter.
The rest of us, with varying degrees of reluctance, agreed to go. We came up with a name for it, “Operation Commando.” Bridget the bard wrote a poem about it; “Our boobs hang low, as we wiggle to and fro.” We procrastinated for months until summer was almost over, finally agreeing to go on Labor Day.
Next to cancel was Raquel. Her partner’s Welsh relative, whom we’d never heard of before, was suddenly in town. It was a plausible story. Raquel had been to Wreck Beach before so she wasn’t chickening out. Or was she?
I’ll admit that I’ve been to Wreck Beach before, although it had been years. Being nude in public—well at least in a sauna with other women—was part of my Finnish heritage. Although my 84-year-old mother says that nudity wouldn’t be such a big deal if North Americans didn’t sexualize it, I didn’t tell her that I was going to Wreck Beach—I was afraid that she might want to come with me.
Without Raquel, I was now the official tour guide. “Let’s meet at the main trail at 11am,” I said. I was the first to arrive, followed by Sandy and Gypsy.
“I forgot my purse,” said Sandy. “I feel naked without it.”
Then Bridget called in a panic, “I can’t do it! I just dropped something off at my son’s student residence and its right across the street from the trail!” Wreck Beach is adjacent to the University of British Columbia campus.
“He wouldn’t go to Wreck Beach, would he?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, but I can’t risk it,” she said.
We saw her point. Being naked in front of strangers was one thing, but an entirely different matter when it came to your 20-year-old son. Our ranks had been seriously decimated—Operation Commando was down from six to three; me and two Wreck Beach newbies.
There is no road access to the beach. It’s walk or don’t go, and you can’t see the beach through the trees. The trail was steep, but well maintained with 497 steps carved into the forest. Going down, in spite of arthritic knees, wasn’t too bad, but we worried about the hike back up at the end of the day. Several younger people were running up the trail, but the older hikers, even those with Nordic poles, were huffing and puffing.
At the bottom of the trail a friendly women asked us to sign a petition to help preserve the beach. “You’re here for the yoga?” she asked Sandy, who was carrying a yoga mat that she’d brought to lie on. When we were out of earshot, Sandy said horrified, “Did she think that I was going to do downward dog naked?”
Gypsy wanted to grab a spot at the bottom of the stairs, next to the high-tech outhouses. “It’ll get too busy” I said, and dragged them hundreds of yards further down the beach. Only later did Gypsy admit her initial concern, “Sometimes I have to pee every hour.” We found a triangle of logs 20 feet from shore and spread our blankets. Behind us the cedar forest obscured the road and the campus; the horseshoe curve of the 7km beach erased the rest of the city. Across the ocean lay the distant mountains of Vancouver Island. “This must be the most beautiful beach in all of Vancouver,” said Sandy.
“Hey, look what I brought,” said Gypsy, pulling out feather boas and incognito glasses. Sandy and I giggled. What was she thinking? That we were going to traipse around the beach naked except for the boas, or perhaps pose for a photo shoot? The only thing I’d planned on doing naked was lying down, definitely not walking around. Gypsy “Rose Lee” was the first to strip. “This feels so nice. Such a gentle breeze,” she said sprawling out in all her glory.
So there we were baring more than just our souls to each other. Gypsy was right. It was nice and rather sensual with the wind kissing your naked bits. None of us were all that self-conscious, and it felt quite natural. The people around us were all ages, many middle-aged, and most had far from perfect bodies. We fit right in.
As more people arrived, beach vendors appeared. Our dining options included buffalo burgers from Stormin’ Norman’s Spirit Grill, a hot-dog stand, a sandwich bar, and a roaming vendor selling homemade empanadas. It is illegal to drink alcohol on Vancouver’s public beaches, but you wouldn’t have known it. Vendors offered lime margaritas, strawberry daiquiris, and ice-cold beer, served right to our beach blankets.
Other illegal substances were also readily available; the people next to us were smoking a joint. A topless woman with dreadlocks, and pierced nipples decorated with feather tassels, was selling marijuana cookies. Most of the roaming vendors were naked except for footwear, and some wore T-shirts. That was puzzling—were they worried about burning their top halves but not their bottoms? The cigar seller, a naked hulk in big boots, turned down some young men in bathing suits. “I won’t sell to you if you aren’t naked, but you’re free to have your own opinion,” he said.
There was always something to look at, albeit discretely, like the guy strolling by with a pierced penis. The Wreck Beach Preservation Society’s website has rules of etiquette that state, “Gawking, staring, or making rude comments is not appreciated,” and “Show the public that nude is not lewd or rude. No overt sexual activity.” The only rude behavior we witnessed were fully clothed tourists gawking. But if you closed your eyes they disappeared.
By the time we left at 3pm, there was a crowd of hundreds enjoying the beach. Other than one large group making music together, it was quiet—another etiquette rule encourages headphones—and the vibe was peaceful. A sense of community was evident with volunteers picking up bottles and garbage. The only thing we would have done differently was to have gone earlier in the summer. Procrastinating until the day before school resumed meant that by the end of the day the beach was swarming with fully clothed students. We were afraid we might run into Bridget’s son, and you know how easily embarrassed young people can be.
A few weeks later, when the six of us were together again, Bridget said, “While we’re on bucket lists there’s something I haven’t done since I was 20. We should drive over the border to Washington State and have a pot party.” Somehow I don’t think she meant checking out the latest from Le Creuset or Cuisinart.
Liisa Atva is a writer who lives near Vancouver, British Columbia. Her personal essays, travel stories and business articles have appeared in various Canadian newspapers and magazines. To learn more see www.liisaatva.com.